Does rail transit reduce CO2?

An interesting new Cato study from Randal O’Toole says no:

Rail transit may use less energy, per passenger mile, than buses. But the introduction of rail transit rarely leads to a reduction in bus operations. Instead, buses that once followed the rail corridors are converted to feeder bus routes. So the incremental effect of rail transit on a transit system’s overall energy use can often be to increase consumption per passenger mile.


Most light-rail systems use as much or more energy per passenger mile as the average passenger car, several are worse than the average light truck, and none is as efficient as a Prius. Three emit less greenhouse gases than a Prius, but several emit more greenhouse gases than light trucks.

Since auto efficiency will continue to improve as fuel prices rise and since rail lines have a working life of several decades, the difference is only likely to become greater. O’Toole suggests that improvements in fuels, vehicles, road innovations, and relatively inexpensive bus transit would be much more cost-effective for reducing greenhouse gas emissions than expanded rail service. Some of these improvements would be surprisingly cheap:

San Jose coordinated 223 traffic signals on the city’s most-congested streets at a cost of about $500,000. Engineers estimate that this saves 471,000 gallons of gasoline each year, which translates to a 9.2 million pound reduction in CO2 emissions. That works out to a cost of just 5.4 cents per pound.

At the margin, of course, if your city already has a rail line you’ll reduce your personal carbon footprint by using it. But if it doesn’t, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is probably not a good reason to spend millions of dollars building one.

Consider this my obligatory Earth Day post.


Eat a ‘roo to cool the planet

A sustainability center in Australia suggests the country could reduce carbon emissions by switching from beef to kangaroo meat:

“Beef consumption is chosen in this measure because it is responsible for the biggest share of livestock-related methane emissions,” it says. “This measure could be reduced by shifting to kangaroo meat and/or lower-meat diets.”

Not that I need another reason to try kangaroo, or “australus” as it may temptingly be called on menus. Alas, shipping it from Down Under to DC probably undoes the carbon savings.

[Via WorldChanging.]


Global warming –> more cats

Global warming leads to more cats. That’s the claim of Pets Across America, who says warming has lengthened the feline mating season. I’m normally opposed to taking drastic action to fight climate change, but if this dubious claim is true I might have to support some massive CO2 reductions. Or perhaps we could just use the excess kitties as a source of biofuel? Whatever’s cheaper.

On a more serious note, here’s what’s new at A Better Earth:
The new push to revive CAFE standards
Should cities tax car sharing services?
“Choice editing” not an apt choice of words
The “Skeptical Environmentalist” returns
UK food miles debate heats up
Yet another downside to ethanol
Wealth and skepticism
Recycling and incentives
We’re all eating mutants!
Floating nuclear power plant
The Woz on efficient housing


Fun with green marketing

Normally I’m a fan of marketing products with green benefits, but sometimes it makes no sense at all. Like with these pricey Italian food containers made of porcelain or glass and formed in the shape of disposable containers, such as paper popcorn bags and cardboard milk cartons. The site advertises them as environmentally friendly because people will reuse them, not throw them away.

This is true of all such containers! Unless people are lugging their porcelain milk cartons directly to the cow, there’s no savings in materials here. Shaping your porcelain to look like disposable stuff doesn’t cut down on disposable stuff. Do people really fall for this?

[Via BLD.]


Ethanol is not energy policy

Yesterday’s news included three informative pieces on ethanol subsidies and why they endure. First, New Scientist reports on yet another study showing that ethanol and similar biofuels do not reduce the amount CO2 in the atmosphere:

Righelato and Dominick Spracklen of the University of Leeds, UK, calculated how long it would take to compensate for those initial emissions by burning biofuel instead of gasoline. The answer is between 50 and 100 years. “We cannot afford that, in terms of climate change,” says Righelato.

The researchers also compared how much carbon would be stored by replanting forests with how much is saved by burning biofuel grown on the land instead of gasoline.

They found that reforestation would sequester between two and nine times as much carbon over 30 years than would be saved by burning biofuels instead of gasoline (see bar chart, right). “You get far more carbon sequestered by planting forests than you avoid emissions by producing biofuels on the same land,” says Righelato.

He and Spracklen conclude that if the point of biofuels policies is to limit global warming, “policy makers may be better advised in the short term to focus on increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel use, to conserve existing forests and savannahs, and to restore natural forest and grassland habitats on cropland that is not needed for food.”

So why do the subsidies keep coming? Because they’re good politics! If you want to win Iowa, you’ve got to like ethanol :

Three Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, all visited the Iowa Falls refinery, where they pledged further investment in alternative energy.

Over the past year, two other candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), went from strongly opposing the expansion of ethanol to endorsing it.

Backing ethanol is a political necessity in the state that is the traditionally the first to choose its presidential candidates. Iowa boasts the greatest number of ethanol plants in the country, producing about 30 percent of the U.S. supply. Ethanol is Iowa’s golden, corn-fed goose.

And it’s not just for corn. With cheaper sugar imports soon to arrive from Mexico, American growers used to protective quotas are looking to ethanol as a way to keep prices up:

Under the farm bill the House passed last month, the federal government would buy surplus sugar and sell it to ethanol producers, where it would be used in a mixture with corn. The program was inserted as a hedge against a looming North American Free Trade Agreement provision, which will let Mexico export unlimited amounts of sugar to the U.S. starting next year…

The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, inserted the sugar-to-ethanol provision in the farm bill. Minnesota is the nation’s largest producer of sugar beets, and Peterson represents the state’s sugar beet-growing Red River Valley. U.S. sugar is made from beets in some Northern and Western states, and cane in a few Southern states and Hawaii.

The media writes about ethanol as if it’s part of energy policy. That’s just a pretense. It’s farm policy.


Of interest while I was away

James Hoffmann triumphs in Tokyo to become the first English winner of the World Barista Championship. Congratulations, James!

Also in Japan, an appearance of miracle fruit in the dessert course at a restaurant practicing molecular gastronomy.

Edmonton coffee shop owner Antonio Bilotta eliminates disposable cups.

David Boaz picks apart media bias in the CAFE standards debate.

German entrepreneur wants to bring smoking back to the luxury skies.

Jonathan Forester discusses pear liqueur.

Houston icon and my childhood favorite TV reporter Marvin Zindler dies.

DC Metro may cut off late night weekend service.


Citizens untie!

The Italian health ministry is urging employers to let their employees go to work without a tie on. The reason? By lowering workers’ body heat, the air conditioning can be set a little higher and energy can be saved, aiding in the fight against global warming.

Ordinarily I’d express some skepticism about ideas like this, but this time I’m completely on board. Alas, I don’t think my employer would be amenable to the argument.

[Via New Scientist.]


How do you take your coffee?

On fire, please.

These Java-Logs are a green product idea I can get behind:

What’s a Java Log? The Java- Log, invented in 1998 by Rod Sprules, is a wonderful tree-saving, non-polluting invention that utilizes a renewable, natural vegetable wax and coffee to fire up the chimney.

The Java-Log is a firelog composed of recycled coffee grounds and according to the Java-Log website, is better than a conventional firelog in many ways. As I mentioned already it is composed of recycled coffee grounds which saves trees and diverts 10 Million Kg per year of coffee waste from landfills. It comes in 100% recycled packaging. It produce significantly fewer emissions than firewood: 8x less Creosote (safer for chimney & clean burning) , 5x cleaner particulate matter (less air pollution), and less carbon monoxide (less air pollution). It smells better than manufactured logs because there is no chemical smell. Some Java-Logs may have a mild sweet aroma. In addition one Java-Log provides a fire equivalent to several pieces of wood, and the flame is 3 times more brilliant to that of one made of wood. It still makes the crackling sound like regular firelogs, but it also does not emit caffeine when burnt so it won’t keep anyone awake at night.

More enviro-blogging:
With fuel-efficient cars, who will pay for roads?
How green is that chainsaw in the window?
Americans skeptical of cap-and-trade
China surpasses US as number one emitter of CO2
Senate considers new energy taxes
Does buying local mean buying green?
Biotech for biofuels
Sublime Kilimanjaro


Drinking vs driving

At A Better Earth it’s my job to watch out for the environment. But at Eternal Recurrence, I’m watching out for something far more important: your beer. So check out this article for a balanced look at how ethanol subsidies are messing with the barley supply, perhaps leading to some long-run price hikes in beer and contributing to the closing of several German malting plants. My favorite quote is this one:

“Farmers around the world are responding to the market signals and making planting decisions accordingly,” said Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association.”`It is a sign that the market is responding.”

Everyone loves the way markets work in other people’s industries.

Recent blogging from aBE:
Did NASA administrator need to apologize?
Caution: Pay-by-weight may cause burns
Coal comfort: Are coal-to-liquid subsidies a good idea?
To fight global warming, think small
Unintended corn-sequences


Damn you, ethanol!

If ethanol subsidies haven’t made you mad already, perhaps this will: the resulting spike in corn prices is causing agave farmers to pull up their plants and replace them with corn. You know what that means? Less tequila!

Of course, less tequila leads to less drinking, which leads to more driving, which leads to more emissions, and thus a net loss for the environment. Ok, well, maybe not. But I do have a more serious post up today about the folly of ethanol subsidies at A Better Earth. I apologize in advance for the terrible pun in the title.

Also at aBE:
Sharks suffer tragedy of the commons
Organic is great, but can it scale?
Amish are early adopters of solar power

[Via Saving the World, One Drink at a Time]



From A Better Earth:
Greenwashing: good for clothes?
Will banning trade save endangered species?
Innovative solar concentrator for the home
Will LEDs win the battle of the bulb?
Coffee cup tax creating a buzz
Smarter cars are greener cars
Ethanol: The wonder fuel?
Are carbon markets markets?
Moon lighting
Carbon offsets: Style over substance?
Let people choose compact fluorescents

At iLiberty, a quick roundup of England’s new smoking ban.

Nothing from me at STC, but co-blogger Dave uncovers a very cool, very beautiful video having nothing to do with coffee. And at EatFoo, Matt reviews Ballston’s new pizza place. His post on his blog Deglazed about America’s misplaced obsession with sterile food is worth reading, too. Actually, his whole site is worth watching; I’m adding it to the blogroll now.


The third wave to go cup

The previous post reminds me of my favorite not quite possible, not going to happen coffee shop idea: a shop that sells all its drinks, even to go ones, in durable ceramic mugs. The cups would all have the coffee shop’s address printed on them with a corresponding postal account, and customers could just drop them in a mailbox when they’re finished with their drink to have it sent back to the shop.

Of course, everyone else in the city would have to deal with coffee dregs spilling all over their mail, but it seems like a worthwhile sacrifice.


Cups and councils

City councillors in Toronto are proposing a tax on paper coffee cups. Of course I recommend ceramic whenever possible, but this is ridiculous:

Hundreds of millions of paper cups are tossed into trash bins across Ontario every year, and they all wind up in landfills. That’s why the city’s Works Committee wants to put a stop to the endless waste and is proposing a 25 to 30 cent tax on every cup of coffee that comes in either a cardboard, styrofoam or wax-lined cup.

That would be more money per cup going to the city for doing virtually nothing than goes to the farmers who grow the beans. Whatever the marginal cost is of collecting and disposing of a paper coffee cup, I’m sure it’s less than 30 cents. Such a tax would also place downward pressure on the prices shops are willing to pay for coffee. Increasing the price of cups is only going to make it harder to sell high quality, sustainably grown coffee, an unintended consequence with it’s own negative environmental impact.

None of which is to say that the paper cups that get thrown out every day aren’t a problem. A better way of addressing it might be to turn heaps of office waste paper into the cups people drink from. The story behind why this isn’t happening much is actually pretty interesting.

If you frequent Starbucks, you might have noticed that the cups there advertise being made from 10% recycled paper. For that you can thank the company’s eco-marketing. For the fact that their cups can’t be higher than 10% recycled, you can thank the federal government:

Starbucks asked its suppliers to take up a new crusade: Get the FDA’s approval for a beverage cup that contained recycled paper, not just on the outside, but the inside as well.

Says one of the company’s executive VPs:

The new regulations that the FDA had come out with required testing to be done to really infinitesimal limits. So we not only had to test to those limits but in many cases had to develop the test protocol itself, because it hadn’t been done before.

Whether or not increasing the percentage of recycled paper will prove to be cost-effective remains to be seen. What is clear is that the coffee industry is getting greener all the time quite independently of meddling city councils.

[Cross-posted on STC.]